In Paris, during the fall of 1979, 15-year-old Charlotte Sanders is hesitant to grow up. Her snobby older sister Lea is on birth control, but Charlotte is still waiting for her period to come, trying to get her best friend to stop mooning over boys and come to the movies with her and staying up nights worrying about her adored but wild mother, Astrid. Even when Charlotte gets a boyfriend of her own, it all seems to be moving too fast—she’s not sure she’s ready for sex, for one thing, and still gets pangs to spend time with her family like they used to.
But suddenly puberty isn’t the only thing Charlotte has to worry about. Astrid, a bored society wife, becomes involved in the Polish Communist movement, takes the leader as her lover, and gets arrested when she impulsively follows him to Warsaw. Charlotte and Lea—joined by their kooky aunt Maybelle from Kentucky—go to rescue her, but when they come back, everything has changed. Their stoic intellectual father moves out, taking Lea with him, and Charlotte and Astrid make a drastic move back to New York, where Charlotte must almost immediately become an adult long before her time.
In the second half of the book, Charlotte’s life seems to slip by in a cavalcade of school, lovers, transatlantic trips, career changes and family crises. She is more likeable, remarkably, as a teenager, and its much easier, as a reader, to become embroiled in the minutiae of her growing pains than in the much larger questions of life, marriage, illness and career.
Though the pacing is at times problematic, McAndrews does something remarkable—she simultaneously captures perfectly a very specific time and place and also speaks to the utterly universal anguish of adolescence. Charlotte’s childhood is captivatingly unusual, but also totally relatable, and the balance sets this debut apart from an otherwise crowded group of coming-of-age stories.
Rebecca Shapiro is an editor who dreams in English in Brooklyn, New York.